Buddhism dominates Western States behind Christianity

Last month the Washington Post published an article* illustrating religion in America today with maps like the one below. If you’re interested in the composition of religion in America today, I highly recommend reading it.

The data used to created them is from the ASARB, the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. That site, which provides downloadable data going back to 1952, is also excellent. Those curious about obscure facts and figures will have a field day there. Just checking the 1952 figures (downloaded as a .csv file) shows that the most religious state then was… Rhode Island, with around 76% reporting adherence to one religion or another, followed by Utah with 73%. Oregon and Washington come in at the bottom with 28% and 30.5% respectively. My home state, Montana, lies right in the middle: 22nd with 47%.

By 2010 Rhode Island had fallen to 21st in the country with just 47% of its residents reporting religious adherence, while Utah rose to #1 with 79%. North Dakota came in 2nd in 2010 with 67% (note the large drop there). Montana dropped to 40th with 38%. And Oregon and now Maine finished out the list with 31% and 27.6% religious adherence respectively.

Data on Buddhism is sparse, with a general “Buddhism” question only added to the census in 2000, but no data on actual adherents, and a breakdown into Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana in the 2010 census. I wrote about a 2008 Trinity College poll on Buddhists in America in 2011, which suggested a seemingly low number of only around 1.19 million Buddhists in America. At that time, in 2011, I guessed from other data that there must be around 5-6 million Buddhists in America. However, the ASARB numbers are much closer to the Trinity College number, giving:

  • 203,900 Theravada Buddhists
  • 732,783 Mahayana Buddhists
  • 55,000 Vajrayana Buddhists
For a total of just under 1 million.  Note from their methods section (.pdf) that this is a count of “visible practicing Buddhists,” a number sure to be far lower than those who would self-ascribe as Buddhist.
As I wrote in 2011, all of these number should be read skeptically. To get a real number we have to turn to someone who can read not only the data itself, but also the holes and gaps in the data. For coverage of Buddhism in America there is no better source than Charles Prebish, who published “Looking West: A Primer on American Buddhism” just over two years ago. In chapter 2 of that book he discusses the rising estimates from a variety of sources, from
  • around 100,000 Buddhists in America in 1970,
  • 800,000 in 1994 
  • (while Robert Thurman guessed 5-6 million around that time and Martin Baumann proposed a number of 3-4 million)
  • 1.5 million in 2001
  • and finally his best guess being between 4 and 6 million today.
That brings us to the map below.
Largest non-Christian Religions in America by State

Largest non-Christian Religions in America by State

While this doesn’t tell us specifically where the millions of Buddhists in America reside, it does give us a good sense of where Buddhism has spread/is spreading in the US. What we need next are maps like this at different times.

Here are a couple more Buddhism maps from the 2010 study:

Update: and just a couple more. Note the Pluralism Project’s 2003 map of Montana shows significantly more sanghas than the ASARB one:

And from the Pluralism Project:

* Religion in America’s States and Counties in 6 Maps

August 1, 2014 update: Jeff Wilson has some similarly skeptical and conflicted thoughts over at Tricycle: “Painting the West Saffron” (June 10, 2014).

  • thesauros

    Ya, and ask any Buddhist where s/he would like to live. 99/100 will pick a nation that has been traditionally Christian. Only one – if you’re lucky – will pick a Buddhist nation.

    • justinwhitaker

      Possibly… Though I’m not sure the disparity would be that great, as a number of Buddhist countries will be appealing (I know of people happily living in Korea, Japan, and Thailand at the moment, for example)…

    • Dion Peoples

      I’m a Buddhist who prefers to live in a Buddhist nation.

      • Pma

        Bhutan is a Buddhist Nation

    • David Tilley

      I think that depends on the moment in time. And which country you pick at that time. I believe they will pick a country that is tolerant of their beliefs and way of life. While America might be that now, it was not even in 1950. In particular if you were a Buddhist of color (or Christian of color for that matter). While Germany is good now, it might not have been so good in the 1930′s.

  • aripliskin

    Maybe I missed it in the article, but I don’t understand what the first map represents. What is it?

    • justinwhitaker

      Oops – I typed the caption in the wrong space (alt-text)… It’s the Largest non-Christian Religions in America by State; so while Christianity is the largest religion in every state, this map shows what the second religion is (by observant adherents, so ‘nones’ aren’t included).

  • Amod Lele

    Note the first map doesn’t necessarily indicate where Buddhists are most prevalent, just where anything OTHER than Buddhism or Christianity is LEAST prevalent. The following maps show plenty of Buddhists in the Northeast and in Florida, they’re just outnumbered by Jews and Muslims here, as they are not on the West Coast.

    • justinwhitaker

      Well put, Amod. i was struggling a bit with just how to put that. In other words, in Montana if you bump into someone who isn’t a Christian or a ‘none’ then it’s more likely that he/she is a Buddhist than a member of any other particular major religious group. Perhaps what we get out of that in terms of “so what?” is less striking than the simple visual effect of seeing the broad swath of orange/saffron in the West. Numerically there are most certainly more Buddhists in Massachusetts and they’re certainly going to be much easier to find than those spread across Montana, even in the relatively concentrated area of Western Montana.

  • Joshua Eaton

    The Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life’s 2008 Religious Landscape Survey (http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf) had pretty wonky numbers on Buddhism, claiming 0.7% of American adults are Buddhist—with 3 in 4 of those converts, and only 1 in 3 Asian. It doesn’t take a statistician to know that’s off. The problem was they only surveyed in English and Spanish—not Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Laotian, Cambodian, Tibetan, etc.

    Their 2012 report Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faith (http://www.pewforum.org/2012/07/19/asian-americans-a-mosaic-of-faiths-overview) corrected a lot of the problems in the earlier Religious Landscape Survey. It found about 14% of Asian-American adults are Buddhist, or about 1- to 1.3% of the total adult population.

    I say all that simply to say I wonder how much the surveys you mention above are thrown off by the language(s) in which the survey was done. Looking at the 2010 census’s methods section for Buddhism (http://www.rcms2010.org/images/2010_US_Religion_Census_Appendix_E.pdf), for example, it’s not clear that they did any surveys in Asian languages.

    An aside: According to the 2012 Pew report on Asian-American religion, only 64% of Asian-American Buddhists believe in reincarnation, while 67% believe in ancestral spirits and 71% believe in God. Who knew?!

    • justinwhitaker

      Many thanks for your comments, Joshua! I recall some discussion of the Pew’s survey back on Arun’s blog and maybe Danny’s too when it came out. If I remember correctly another problem was the use of land-lines; or that may have been an earlier study.

      As they surveyed groups via mail with telephone follow-ups rather than individuals here, I imagine (hope!) they must have used native languages for any group that had no English-speaking representative. Yet, given that some Asian groups might not have a telephone directory or web presence, they might have been overlooked entirely. It’s curious though, just looking at the numbers of Jews is many states:
      1350 in Montana (okay, perhaps the few convert Buddhists outnumber that) but
      17,775 in Kansas and 91,000 in Colorado; I’m guessing that Asian American Buddhists must have come into the count in those states.

      I’m glad you pointed out the 14% figure though, as given there are over 18 million Asian Americans, there must be at least 2.5 million Asian American Buddhists. So any number for total American Buddhists must be higher than that.

      And wow – 71% of Asian-American Buddhists believe in GOD!? (or, I see, a ‘universal spirit’)… Okay, I can go with that – Amida / Omitofo can, I suppose, fill that role as well as other bodhisattvas….

      Anyhow – thanks again – lots of food for thought here!


  • Gab Winter

    Just like in Europe, Islam will conquer America eventually.
    Sharia laws that forbids apostasy and other basic freedoms is already installed in the UK. Only a matter of time now.

    • jschoder

      I would like to see a source for the claim that 4.4% percentage of the population somehow implemented Sharia law in the United Kingdom.

      • hmw

        we can live with christians jews hindus and and other religions as brothers and sisters but not with islam first they are showing very good face then stab us back.

        • jschoder

          Do you have a reliable source for that claim? (Right wing and racist websites don’t count.)

          • hmw

            u can see it near future in Myanmar.

  • hmw

    Europe is taking over by islam cancer

  • mingheanghui .

    I definitely live in a buddhist or christian country rather than a Islam country where this doom religion who has no religious freedom to all human being, hopefully people will read and realized about the Sharia Law b4 converted to this religion, which does not allow anyone to converted to any other religion when you are a muslim, don’t you get yourself being doom..